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Ballad of Narayama

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Interview with Jacqueline Bisset

If this were a scene in a movie, you'd know right away that it was the scene about the actress' last day in town. Jacqueline Bisset's two-room suite at the Sheraton Plaza was scattered with props for her departure. The bedroom floor was lined with trunks and suitcases, their lids tilted open, clothes tumbling out of them. Leaning against the wall in the living room was one of those big cartoonist's caricatures showing Jackie with a giant head balanced on top of a tiny body. It said, "Good Luck, Jackie!" and it was signed by all the members of the cast and crew of her latest film.

While she was talking on the telephone, making reservations for dinner, she took down two big glossy photos of cute white cats - calendar shots she had taped to the wall to make this hotel room a little more like home. In another day, she'd be back home in California and the hotel maids would be rearranging this furniture.

It was a day for leave-taking, the clouds hanging low over the city. It was that hour when you call for coffee and drink it hot and black because your eyes are heavy and the back of your throat feels like you might be coming down with something. It was the sort of afternoon when you don't know whether to turn on the lights. Jacqueline Bisset finished talking to the restaurant and came and flopped down on the sofa and smoothed back her hair.

"Living in international hotels, you could be anywhere," she said. "It's a nice hotel, to be sure. I've grown to love the view, the way the air and light come in over the city. In the early morning, I stand and watch the sun rise behind that tiny little house out there on the spit of land beyond the pier."

"You must have lived in a lot of hotel rooms," I said. "This was your 34th movie, give or take a couple."

"When we come home after working all day, and I have to say goodbye to my friends in the corridor, I panic," she said. "I don't watch the television much. I brought along a big pile of books but I haven't read any of them."

"They say that a movie company on location is like a family," I said, "with people playing roles and fitting into each other's needs."

"I find," she said, "that I have an intense obsession with making films. I not only love to make films, I perhaps need to make films."

"Very few actors have been in as many different films since 1965 as you have," I said. "Do you have a fear of doing nothing? A need to keep in motion?"

"I work hard, and I tend to play hard. I very seldom rest hard. When I am working on a movie, all I want to talk about is the movie. All I want to be with are the movie people. It's like a clan. If I'm asked to people's houses for dinner, I hate to go, because they'll talk about other things . . . and all I want to talk about is the movie. How a shot was shot. Whether it worked. I think it must sound to other people a lot like somebody discussing golf putts. It's very hard to be interested in a golf putt if it wasn't your putt."

She was wearing gray slacks, a light gray sweater, white tennis shoes. She looked like one of those healthy English women who are always just returning from a brisk winter walk. They say Jacqueline Bisset is one of the most successful movie actresses in the world, that her asking price is $1 million a picture and that she is as popular as Jane Fonda or Faye Dunaway. That may be true. At 38, there is no denying her beauty, her cool composure and the astonishing effect of her wide-set eyes. But there is one thing Bisset does not have at this stage in her career, and that is a string of distinguished performances in great movies behind her.

Looking at her credits, it does almost seem as if her goal was to keep working at whatever cost. The Filmgoers' Companion lists more than 30 movies for her through 1978, but italicizes only one of them for quality: "The Grasshopper," 1970. I would also have italicized Francois Truffaut's "Day for Night" (1973), her effective performance as Jacqueline Onassis in "The Greek Tycoon" (1979), and the hard-drinking writer in last year's "Rich and Famous," a film she produced and starred in with Candice Bergen.

But there are all those other titles. After Richard Lester used her in a small role in "The Knack" (1965), she went into modeling, was discovered by Roman Polanski, got a small role in his "Cul-de-Sac" (1966), and then played a series of sex symbols and girlfriends in movies such as "Casino Royale" (1967), "Two for the Road," "The Sweet Ride" and "The Capetown Affair." She came to Hollywood and won two of the choicest roles of 1968, opposite Frank Sinatra in "The Detective" and Steve McQueen in "Bullitt." Once again, her role could be summarized as The Girl.

And in the 1970s she was in one forgettable film after another: "The Mephisto Waltz," "Believe in Me," "Secrets," "Stand Up and Be Counted," "The Thief Who Came to Dinner," "The Spiral Staircase" and "St. Ives," as well as in some more ambitious pictures, such as John Huston's "The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean" (1972) and the original "Airport" (1969). If there is an image that most people have of Jacqueline Bisset, it probably involves her wet T-shirt in "The Deep" (1977). Few actresses have been busier in the last 17 years to less avail.

And now here she was, packing up after another role in another movie on another location, and I felt a real empathy for her. There is something immensely likable about Bisset. She has a real womanly warmth in many of her roles; she seems to really be there, to listen and to care. And there is something reassuring about seeing her on the screen. I suspect that people have a more positive opinion of her than is really accounted for by the inconsequential movies she had, for so many years, the habit of making.

She was in Chicago to make "Class," a movie co-starring Cliff Robertson and directed by Lewis John Carlino, the man who wrote "Resurrection" and wrote and directed "The Great Santini." Based on Carlino's track record, "Class" may very well turn out to be a good movie, but everyone is being very closemouthed about it, and you can hardly squeeze a plot description out of the publicist. It has something to do with Robertson as a rich industrialist and Bisset as his wild wife; there was a lot of publicity when they shot a sex scene in an elevator at Water Tower Place, with Jackie seducing a 19-year-old.

"I don't like to talk about it, because there's a real twist at the end of this movie, and the twist got me when I read the script, so I don't want to give it away for anyone else," she said.

"Was it a little strange doing the erotic scene in the elevator?"

"It was sort of funny, really. We were locked in there with the director and the cameraman and the lights, and the elevator kept getting stuck, with the temperature rising."

Room service arrived with the coffee, and she poured out cups on the coffee table. I'd brought along an envelope full of yellowing newspaper clippings about Bisset, and she glanced through some of them - interviews, reviews, breathless gossip about her long liaison with Michael Sarrazin and her current romance with Alexander Godunov, photographs of her in dozens of different costumes.

"I can't believe I've been doing it so long," she said. "In the last three or four years, I've slowed down. I'm doing only the roles I really want to do. I'm looking for good roles. That's why I produced 'Rich and Famous' myself . . . I read the script, and I thought it should be made, and it was a good role. In the last few years, I've only made that, and an Italian film named 'Together,' and 'Inchon.' Now that was a nice little role . . . but it was extraneous to the main part of the film . . ."

"Did you set out in life to be an actress?"

"I wanted to dance. I grew up in a small town about 40 miles outside London, but it was a fairly cosmopolitan household. My father was a Scottish doctor, my mother was French . . . They encouraged me to do anything I wanted to do. I lived to see Margot Fonteyn dance."

"Saturdays, you took the train into London?"

"Saturdays were for riding horses. It cost a lot of money to go into London. I was a bit of a loner, I suppose. I read a lot. I was never any good in the school theatrical productions. I always got a role like the March Hare. A Latin teacher told me I might make a good actress, and that stuck in my memory. I went off to London and did some modeling, and Polanski gave me that small part. I went to America and that's where I had a chance to learn how to act, how to behave around a sound stage. At first I was always cast as the girlfriend. It was a long time before I got to play characters who were people."

She sipped her coffee and tucked her legs beneath her.

"I'd like to get my public image nearer to my reality. People are always saying, 'Oh! You're actually a good actress!' They have seen me, you know, in 'The Deep,' and 'Airport,' and they think . . ." She sighed. "I don't know what they think. I think they have a lot of misconceptions."

"In those clippings," I said, "you're quoted as saying you hate the subject of marriage. Why haven't you ever gotten married? Are you married to a career?" "Marriage has just never interested me, as such," she said. "I work very hard at relationships. I've done the thing of being home. I worked all day and came home and did all the stuff at home that a woman is supposed to do, the cooking and the entertaining. I'm a perfectionist, and, besides, I loved all those things. I need to be needed. I need to do things for a man. But." She made a wry little grin. "I don't need to do them as much, these days."

"Do you think you're becoming . . . an adult?"

"I think I am an adult," she said, rather briskly.

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